If you glance at your liturgical calendar this week, you’ll notice an often-overlooked custom in Advent: the O Antiphons.  The 1662 Book of Common Prayer only notes O Sapientia in its liturgical calendar, others versions all of them.  However, none give much explanation or practical instructions on their use.  I will do both here, plus provide some musical examples (see links in the table below).

A Brief History

The pre-reformation daily monastic offices were conducted using a rather complex system of books, calendars, rubrics, hymnals, and other texts.  Among the ever-changing parts of these offices were short sentences that were sung (or said) before and after (sometimes between groups of verses) each Psalm and Canticle, called antiphons.  They changed according to the day of the week, the office, and the liturgical season. If you visit a monastery today, you will likely still hear the singing of multiple antiphons according to the particular day (I’ve been to several and still have a hard time following along in the breviaries).  Thomas Cranmer discarded the complicated use of the antiphons when he combined the seven medieval monastic offices into simple Morning and Evening Prayer. A couple seasonal antiphons did find their way back into the 1928 and subsequent American prayer books (including the 2019) at the Invitatory Psalm in Morning Prayer. For instance “Our King and Savior now draws near: O come let us adore him” is prescribed for use in Advent (2019 BCP, p 29). 

Example of an antiphon in Lauds

Like the origins of most of the old antiphons, nobody really knows the history of the Advent O Antiphons, other than some evidence that that they date back to as early as the 6th Century. The text of the O Antiphons themselves come from the prophet Isaiah and are all referencing the names of the promised Messiah: O Wisdom, O Adonai (Lord), O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Dayspring, O King of Nations, and O Emmanuel (God with us). Originally there were only seven, beginning with the 17th of December until the 23rd.  At some point in the English tradition an eighth was added, O Virgo Virginum (O Virgin of Virgins), on the 23rd as a dedication to Mary, thus bumping all the antiphons to start on the 16th (which continues in the Anglican/English use today).   The simple titles (“O Wisdom”, etc.) listed in the Prayer Books are only the first few words of the actual full antiphons, which can be found in a variety of sources.  Common Worship, the unofficial modern prayer book in England, lists the full text.  Most will recognize paraphrases of the O Antiphons when singing the well-beloved carol, O Come O Come Emmanuel.  In fact, many hymnals date each verse to be sung on the corresponding days (confusingly, the Episcopal 1982 Hymnal uses the Roman dating, instead of the Anglican/English, since there is no verse for O Virgo Viginum). The 2019 Book of Common Prayer list them under “Optional Commemorations” (page 712).

The O Antiphons help us remember that Christ was the fulfillment of hundreds of years of prophecy and God’s promise to his people to send a Messiah.  Likewise, in Advent, we remember these promises of Christ’s first coming and eagerly await His second. 

4 Practical Ways to Use the O Antiphons

#1 Traditionally– Sing or say the antiphons before and after the Magnificat at Evening Prayer (Evensong), just as they were intended. If done corporately, they can can be printed out for people to read together, or just be said by the officiant. When sung, the easiest method would be plainsong chant. You can find countless examples in English and Latin of the same music sung in the Middle Ages. Plainsong works best when the Magnificat is actually chanted in plainsong as well. Here is an example:

#2 As Musical Anthems– Instead of being used at the Magnificat at Evening Prayer, they can be sung (or a recording played) in the home when lighting the Advent wreath; or in other worship services such as Lessons and Carols, an Advent Processional, or at a Eucharist. Plainsong would not be recommended in this instance as it would be too plain and too short. Rather, use some of the amazing choral pieces that are out there. Here are two beautiful examples (O Oriens is my favorite!):

#3 Singing O Come, O Come Emmanuel– As mentioned above, this classic hymn is a compilation of all the O Antiphons (except O Virgin of Virgins). Many congregations sing certain verses of this song on each of the Sundays of Advent. They can also be sung with the Magnificat or in the home corresponding to the appropriate days.

#4 Pray Them. A simple way to incorporate these in your personal or parish life is to pray these antiphons as prayers, because prayers they are. They can be said just as written, or used to build other prayers upon. Some congregations may even use them at the Prayer of the People or in within a closing benediction.

Roman (English) AntiphonO Come, O Come VerseBiblical Text Example
Dec 17 (16)O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem,fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae 

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,reaching from one end to the other,mightily and sweetly ordering all things:Come and teach us the way of prudence 
O come, thou Wisdom from on high, who orderest all things mightily; to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go. 
“The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” Isaiah 11:2-3
[…] he is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in wisdom.” Isaiah 28:29 
Latin Plainsong
English Plainsong
Latin Anthem
English Anthem
Dec 18 (17)O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel,qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento. 

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bushand gave him the law on Sinai:Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm. 
O come, O come, thou Lord of might, who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times once gave the law
in cloud and majesty and awe. 
“[…] but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.” Isaiah 11:4-5
“For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our ruler, the Lord is our king; he will save us.” Isaiah 33:22 
Latin Plainsong
English Plainsong
English Anthem
Dec 19 (18)O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum, super quem continebunt reges os suum, quem Gentes deprecabuntur: veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare. 

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples; before you kings will shut their mouths, to you the nations will make their prayer: Come and deliver us, and delay no longer. 
O come, thou Branch of Jesse, free thine own from Satan’s tyranny; from depths of hell thy people save,
and give them victory over the grave. 
“A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Isaiah 11:1
“On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.” Isaiah 11:10 
Latin Plainsong
English Plainsong
Latin Anthem
English Anthem
Dec 20 (19)O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel; qui aperis, et nemo claudit;claudis, et nemo aperit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis. 

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel; you open and no one can shut; you shut and no one can open: Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. 
O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home; make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery. 
“I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open.” Isaiah 22:22
“His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onwards and for evermore.” Isaiah 9:7
“…To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house.”Isaiah 42:7
Latin Plainsong
English Plainsong
Latin Anthem
English Anthem
Dec 21 (20)O Oriens*, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis. 

O Morning Star, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness: Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. 

Also means Dayspring, East (where the words Orient/Oriental come from), or Rising Sun.
O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thy drawing nigh;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight. 
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” Isaiah 9:2  Latin Plainsong
English Plainsong
Latin Anthem
Latin Anthem 2
English Anthem
Dec 22 (21)O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem,quem de limo formasti. 

O King of the nations, and their desire, the cornerstone making both one: Come and save the human race, which you fashioned from clay. 
O come, Desire of nations, bind in one the hearts of all mankind; bid thou our sad divisions cease, and be thyself our King of Peace. “For a child has been born for us, a son given us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6
“He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Isaiah 2:4
“But now, O LORD, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand.Isaiah 64:8 
Latin Plainsong
English Plainsong
Latin Anthem
Dec 23 (22)O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum: veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster 

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Saviour: Come and save us, O Lord our God. 
O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear. 
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Isaiah 7:14 Latin Plainsong
English Plainsong
(Dec 23)O Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud? Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem.Filiae Jerusalem, quid me admiramini? Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis. 

O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be? For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after.Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me? The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery. 
  Latin Plainsong
English Plainsong
English Anthem

1 Comment

Francis Lyons · December 16, 2020 at 8:53 am

It also bears pointing out that poor St Thomas is removed to a different day in the CoE calendar to provide for undisturbed access to this supplemental liturgical custom!!

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